Father, Forgive Them

Luke 23:34

Tom Pennington  •  March 24, 2013
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Today I want us to step away from our study of the Lord's Prayer, and I want us to turn our hearts toward the Passion Week. I want us, for a few moments this morning, to focus our thoughts on our Lord and on His death for us. I want us to see His untarnished perfection in the face of the worst of humanity. I want us to witness His relentless pursuit of those who were lost, even when it cost Him everything, even His own life. I want us to gaze in wonder at what the hymn writer called "His love unknown that has broken every barrier down." Nowhere do we see more profoundly the beauty of Jesus Christ than when He is only covered by dried blood, human spit and crawling flies. Nowhere do we see the glory of Jesus Christ more on display than those dark hours that He suffered alone in agony on the cross.

I want to read Luke's entire account of the crucifixion and then we will concentrate together on only one verse, but turn with me to Luke 23:33.

When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. But Jesus was saying, 'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they're doing.' And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves. And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, 'He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Messiah of God, His Chosen One.' The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, and saying, 'If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!' Now there was also an inscription above Him, 'This is the King of the Jews.' One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, 'Are You not the Messiah? Save Yourself and us!' But the other answered, and rebuking him said, 'Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.' And he was saying, 'Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!' And He said to him, 'Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.' It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, because the sun was obscured; and the veil of the temple was torn in two. And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, 'Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.' Having said this, He breathed His last. Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he began praising God, saying, 'Certainly this man was innocent.' And all the When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. But Jesus was saying, 'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they're doing.' And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves. And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, 'He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Messiah of God, His Chosen One.' The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, and saying, 'If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!' Now there was also an inscription above Him, 'This is the King of the Jews.' One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, 'Are You not the Messiah? Save Yourself and us!' But the other answered, and rebuking him said, 'Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.' And he was saying, 'Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!' And He said to him, 'Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.' It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, because the sun was obscured; and the veil of the temple was torn in two. And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, 'Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.' Having said this, He breathed His last. Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he began praising God, saying, 'Certainly this man was innocent.' And all the crowds who came together for this spectacle, when they observed what had happened, began to return, beating their breasts. And all His acquaintances and the women who accompanied Him from Galilee were standing at a distance, seeing these things."

That is the record of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ but, in reality, the actual crucifixion is recorded for us in just one simple yet stunning verse. Luke records in verse 33, in simple, straightforward terms, the crucifixion of the eternal Son of God: "When they came to the place called The Skull, (probably having to do with a limestone outcropping at a nearby limestone quarry just outside the city gate of Jerusalem) there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left." It's in that context that we read these words in verse 34: "But Jesus was saying, 'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.'" This of course is the first of seven extraordinary statements that Jesus made while He was hanging on the cross. These statements are often called the Seven Words of the Cross. Three of the seven statements were made between the hours of nine a.m. and noon. The first of them, recorded in verse 34, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." shortly after He was actually nailed to the cross. The second of the seven statements is down in verse 43 when He says to the thief: "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise." The third statement that takes place, still in the morning hours, is recorded by John in John 19:27, when He speaks to John the apostle about Mary, and He says, "Behold, your mother" as He cares even in His dying moments for His mother.

Then from noon until three p.m., complete darkness covered the land and there was nothing but silence during those hours from Jesus. All that you could hear from Him were the groans of His suffering. But just before three o'clock in the afternoon and just before His death, Jesus makes four additional statements from the cross. Matthew and Mark both record the fourth statement when He cries out in anguish to the Father: "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" The fifth word from the cross John the apostle records in John 19:28 when Jesus says there at the end of those six hours: "I am thirsty." And then in John 19:30 shortly thereafter, the sixth word: "It is finished." And finally, the seventh word from the cross comes here in Luke's gospel in verse 46: "Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit."

It's here in the passage we read together this morning that Luke records the first of those Seven Words from the Cross.

Since we're studying the Lord's Prayer and since we've just completed the petition where our Lord taught us to pray for forgiveness, and since as we saw last week, God's forgiveness of us is tied to our forgiveness of others, I thought it would be fitting this morning as we begin the Passion Week to study together Jesus' prayer from the cross for the forgiveness of those who crucified Him.

You understand that these seven sayings from the cross are absolutely full of meaning, because of the compression of Jesus' heart into these few words. J. Oswald Sanders writes this: "Because they were His last words and spoken under such tragic circumstances, the seven sayings of our Lord from the pulpit of the cross are of special significance. In them, He laid bare His inmost soul. In them, He exemplified the spiritual principles He had been teaching. Each of these sayings (Sanders writes) is an ocean of truth compressed into a drop of speech. That monstrous monument of the cross was transformed into the most eloquent pulpit of the ages."

This morning, I want us to examine the ocean of truth that has been compressed into the first word from the cross. As we examine this prayer, I want you to notice first of all, the pattern. Verse 34: "But Jesus was saying…" In the little word but that begins verse 34, there is a stark contrast. It's intended by Luke to be a contrast with the action of the soldiers back in verse 33. When they had come to that limestone outcropping, that quarry just outside of the city, "there they (that is, the Roman soldiers, usually a detail of four soldiers were assigned the task of crucifixion; there they) crucified Him and the criminals…But Jesus was saying, 'Forgive them…'"

This gives us the context for this prayer. Remember, Jesus had been tried both before the Jewish leaders and the Romans. And He had been found not guilty of all crimes, including all crimes deserving of death, and including the trumped-up charge of insurrection. Yet because of history's greatest travesty of justice, He, the perfectly innocent One, in fact the perfectly righteous One, has just been brutally attached to a Roman cross. The soldiers would have attached Him, as we know from archaeology, with iron spikes between five and seven inches long, at their widest point a half an inch across - not through His hands because the hands wouldn't support the weight of the body which was crucial to the torture of crucifixion, but rather, as we've seen from bodies recovered with the nails still in them, through the wrists so the bones that join there could support the weight of the body as He torturously pulls Himself up and lets Himself down to gain breath through the torturous death of crucifixion which is suffocation. No sooner had the four Roman soldiers that were assigned this detail finished their grisly and bloody task than they heard Jesus speak. Now they were used to that. The men that they had crucified before had often spoken and always had much to say. David Smith writes: "It was usual for the victims of that dreaded doom, frenzied with pain, to shriek, to entreat, to spit at, and to curse those who inflicted their torture." So when Jesus began to speak, what the soldiers expected was to hear Him curse them, or perhaps to cry out in anger about His innocence and how undeserving He is of this death, or to plead for mercy as undoubtedly many had before. Instead, Jesus was praying. Even that wasn't too extraordinary, because even criminals sometimes cry out to God when they're facing death. It wouldn't have been necessarily unusual to hear a man who had just been crucified cry out to God for mercy or for deliverance or even for forgiveness for his own sins, but this Man was praying for them. This was a first.

It was not surprising that in the midst of the greatest trial of His life, Jesus was praying. That was, as we've discovered in the Lord's Prayer, the pattern of His life and what He taught us as well. So during those six hours on the cross, Jesus prayed. As one author puts it, "His hands can no longer perform acts of love for friend or enemy. His feet can no more carry Him on errands of mercy. But one form of ministry, and the highest, is still open to Him. He can still pray." Eventually, Jesus will pray for Himself. After noon and when the sky goes dark, He will cry out in that cry of separation: "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" And at the end of His ordeal just before His death in the cry of confidence: "Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit." But here, we learn that during those excruciating hours on the cross, He prayed for others. Notice verse 34: "But Jesus was saying…" The English translators have captured well the tense of the Greek verb because the idea behind the verb that's used here makes it clear that this was not a one-time, one sentence prayer that Jesus shot off between His own obsession with His pain and moved on. But rather this prayer for their forgiveness was there for some time. It was the focus of His thoughts, the preoccupation of His mind, and the fruit of His lips for a lengthy period of time. He was praying for their forgiveness.

Don't forget the context in which Jesus prays this. When did Jesus pray this prayer? He prayed it on the macro level - when man's hatred for God was at the greatest in the murder of His own Son, when Israel's religious leaders under the pretense of holiness and concern for the nation had perpetrated the greatest crime of all time, when the Creator who had become one of us, a creature, was being chased from the world He Himself created. When sin was its very blackest, that's when He prayed: "Father, forgive them…"

You know, I think almost every human being resorts to prayer at a moment of crisis. There's a lot of truth to the saying that "you never meet an atheist in a foxhole or on a crashing plane." But Jesus was simply doing what had been the pattern of His life. It just came naturally to pray. This was the pattern, and it should be for us as well. There's a reminder here that our Lord should hear from us so often that when we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis and we cry out to Him, He's not surprised to hear our voice. It was the pattern.

Notice, secondly, the petition. Verse 34 goes on to say: "But Jesus was saying, 'Father, forgive them…'" The simple invocation of Jesus' prayer is just the one word Father. Luke uses the Greek word Pater, but our Lord likely prayed this prayer in Aramaic, the language that He spoke at home and among His friends and that He taught in most frequently. And if that is true, it would have been the word Abba, Papa. Jesus was the first one to refer to God in this way. He taught us to address God in this same way, to call God in Romans 8 our Abba, our Papa, our Father. But for Him, it was true in a unique way. He was the monogenes, the only begotten Son, the eternal Son of the Father, whereas we are adopted sons and daughters.

He cries out in this prayer from the cross, "Father…" Now what makes that remarkable to me, is that even as He suffers in unimaginable torment, He still trusts the Father. He still loves the Father. It's the spirit of Job 13:15 – "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him." And that's exactly what was happening on the cross. The Father was crushing the Son, according to Isaiah 53, for the sins of those who would believe. And even in that, He calls out, "Father…" There's a powerful lesson for us there, isn't there? When we encounter trials that are far less difficult than our Lord's, we are prone to answer in anger and bitterness and complaint, in distrust. But He says, "Father…"

Now notice the petition itself, just two simple words: "forgive them…" That is a surprising prayer for a couple of reasons – first of all because most people facing death are concerned about themselves and the forgiveness of their own sins, but of course Jesus had none. He was perfect. So instead, He's praying for the sins of others. But there's another reason that this is surprising and that's because during His ministry, you remember that Jesus had unequivocally claimed to have the personal authority to forgive sins. You remember in Mark 2 when the paralytic is brought to Him and Jesus says to the paralytic: "Son, your sins are forgiven you." Later in that same passage in verse 10 of Mark 2, He says: "The Son of Man (speaking of Himself) has authority on earth to forgive sins…" Now think about that for a moment. Why, on the cross, did Jesus, who had the authority to forgive sins, who had forgiven sins, ask God to forgive? Because He was on the cross bearing sins, bearing the sins of everyone who would ever believe. At this moment, He is being treated by God, believer, as if He had lived your life. At this moment as He prays this prayer, He is being treated as if He had committed your sins. So He's not in the position to forgive sin. Instead, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5, He was made sin for us. And so He prays: "Father, forgive them…"

But what exactly is Jesus asking the Father to do? Well, if you look at this expression as He uses it in a couple of other places in Luke's gospel, it becomes clear. We already suspect the answer, but just to make it clear to you. In Luke 11:4 in the version of the Lord's Prayer here in the gospel of Luke, Jesus uses this same basic wording. And He said here's how you're to pray: "Pray, 'Father… forgive us our sins.'" Same words, same idea; instead of forgive them, forgive us our sins. In Luke 17:3, again He uses similar language when He says: "If your brother sins, confront him; and if your brother repents, forgive him." Instead of forgive them, forgive him, but again it's the idea of sins. So understand then that when Jesus prays, "Father, forgive them," He is asking the Father to cancel their debt, to blot out the record of their sin. He's asking God in His sovereign grace to grant them genuine repentance and faith, and then to completely pardon them in response to that repentance and faith. You say how do you know that? It's because there is no forgiveness without faith and repentance. Let me say that again. There can be no forgiveness without faith and repentance. Turn over to Luke 24:46. After His resurrection, Jesus is talking to the eleven and He said to them:

Thus it is written, that the Messiah would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, (now notice verse 47) and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem

Jesus says there's only one way to get forgiveness of sins and that's repentance. You have to be willing to turn from your rebellion against God and His law in your heart. You have to be willing to turn from everything you are convinced is sin before Him. That's the only way to get forgiveness. And let me tell you – if you've never done that, then I can tell you on the authority of Jesus Christ, you have not been forgiven. You still bear the guilt of your sin and someday you will pay for your sin. You see, every sin has to be paid for. Every single sin you have ever committed will be paid for. Either it'll be paid for by Jesus or it'll be paid for by you forever. Those are the only two options. So there has to be repentance.

There also has to be faith. Peter, in Acts 10:43 said to Cornelius and those who had gathered with him there: "Of Christ all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins." You have to put your faith in Jesus Christ and Him alone. You have to acknowledge Him as Savior and Lord for you to experience forgiveness of sins. Jesus is asking God to give these men the gift of faith and the gift of repentance, so that they may then experience the forgiveness of their sins.

Now for whom exactly is Jesus asking God's forgiveness? Or let me ask the question a different way. Was Jesus as the divine Son, in His omniscience, praying here only for those in the crowd that He knew were elect? Or was Jesus, instead, as a godly human man reflecting the love of God for all men, and praying as we should pray, for all of those around us to be saved? I think both are true, and we'll see in a moment how God answered this prayer in saving the elect. But I think Jesus here is praying as a godly man, for the salvation of all of those responsible for His death. He's like Stephen in Acts 7:60: "Falling on his knees, Stephen cried out with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them!'" Stephen was praying for their salvation.

We are commanded to pray for the lost around us. Turn to 1 Timothy 2. There in Ephesus, where Timothy, Paul's young protégé, pastored, there had been some false teaching among the Judaizers as they were called. The Judaizers basically taught that you had to become a Jewish proselyte and keep the law, along with believing in Jesus, in order to be saved. Well, you can imagine how that discouraged evangelism and how it discouraged praying for others to come to know Christ. And so Paul wants to set that straight. And so he writes in 1Timothy 2:1, Timothy and the church there:

First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgiving, be made on behalf of all men, (and he's talking about praying for their salvation as we'll see in a moment) for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.

When's the last time you prayed for the salvation of our president? When is the last time you prayed for the salvation of our congressmen and women, our governor, mayor? Verse 3: "This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior…" God is by nature a Savior, and so it's good in His eyes. It's acceptable in His eyes that we pray for the salvation of all men around us because, verse 4: "He Himself desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." God, in His will of desire, (not His will of decree) desires all men to be saved. He doesn't delight in the death of the wicked. He doesn't delight in their destruction. And so it's right that you and I pray for their salvation. That's what Paul is saying. Just as our Lord through Paul, here, commands us to pray for the salvation of all of those around us, He Himself modeled that, even on the cross. As William Hendriksen (the great Presbyterian commentator) put it: "Is it even conceivable that He who insists that we must love our enemies, should not exemplify this virtue Himself?"

So think about who that means Jesus prayed for that day. Look back at Luke 23:13. It means He prayed for the Jewish leaders and the Jewish people because in verse 13, Pilate summoned the chief priests and the rulers and the Jewish people that were there in that agora that morning. And he says, "You brought this person to me. What do I do with Him?" Verse 18: "They cried out all together, saying, 'Away with this man, and release for us Barabbas!'" (the terrorist) "Pilate (verse 20) wanted to release Jesus… but they kept on calling out, saying, "Crucify, crucify Him!" A third time, Pilate tries to change their minds. Verse 23: "But they were insistent, with loud voices asking that He be crucified." Jesus was praying for the Jewish leaders and the Jewish people who were screaming for His execution.

Jesus was praying for Pilate. Verse 24: "Pilate pronounced sentence that their demand be granted. He released Barabbas (the murderer, the terrorist)… but he delivered Jesus to their will." Here was a man who knew what was just, and for his own political advantage, was willing to allow the murder of an innocent man. Jesus prayed for him. He prayed in verse 26 for Simon of Cyrene, the man who was forced to carry the cross of Christ - by God's providence just happened upon this lynch mob, and was forced to carry the cross member that Jesus collapsed under. He prayed for the two thieves down in verse 32, two others also who were criminals. These were compatriots of Barabbas. They too were fellow terrorists and murderers crucified with Him. He prayed for the Roman soldiers who in verse 33 crucified Him and in verse 36 joined in the mocking. He prayed for them all: "Father, forgive them…"

You know, for us who are in Christ, this serves as a wonderful pattern. Jesus is here modeling the Father's love for the world. Jesus is modeling for us what it's like to pray for the lost around us. Let me ask you. When is the last time you intentionally prayed, by name, for the people you know who are unbelievers? When is the last time you prayed, "Father, forgive them. Bring repentance and faith, and respond to that repentance and faith with forgiveness." Jesus is modeling 1Timothy 2 for us.

If you're not a disciple of Jesus Christ and you're here this morning, do you understand that because Jesus prayed for those who actually were torturing and killing Him, that there is no sin He will not forgive if you're willing to repent? Think for a moment about the sins that you bear, stained deeply into your conscience – those things that come back to you when you're all alone and no one else is there, the things that wake you up during the night, the things for which you feel overwhelming guilt. There are none of those that He won't forgive if you're willing to turn from them and put your faith in Him.

So we've seen the pattern and the petition. Let's consider thirdly the argument that He gives to the Father. Verse 34: "But Jesus was saying, 'Father, forgive them; (and here's, here's the reason) for (because) they do not know what they are doing.'" Now that does not mean that those participating in the crucifixion were not guilty for their sinful actions. Nor does it mean that they somehow deserved forgiveness because they really didn't comprehend the full scope of what they were doing. They should have known. They bear the guilt of not knowing. Try this when you're pulled over by the policemen. Try saying: You know, I just didn't know what the speed limit was. Ignorance does not mitigate guilt.

So what does Jesus mean here? He means that those who were crucifying Him were responsible for the brutal murder of an innocent man. They knew that was happening. And they were responsible for their deliberate rejection of His claims, even though He had given them plenty of reason to believe. But they were not responsible for intentionally killing God. They didn't understand the full magnitude of their sin. They didn't know that they were torturing and killing God's eternal Son come in the flesh. In Acts 3:17, Peter says: "Brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did also." In 1 Corinthians 2:8, Paul talks about the wisdom that's in the gospel and he says this is "a wisdom which none of the rulers of this age understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory…" It's the ignorance of Paul in 1Timothy 1:13 where he says: "…even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief…"

Now don't misunderstand. They were guilty of sin. Under the Old Testament law, under the sacrificial system, an innocent animal had to die as a substitute not only for willful sins, but even for sins of ignorance. J.C. Ryle writes: "We must beware of supposing that ignorance is not blameworthy, and the ignorant persons deserve to be forgiven for their sins. At this rate, ignorance would be a desirable thing, but in fact, all spiritual ignorance is culpable. It is part of man's sin that he does not know better than he does. On the other hand, we cannot fail to observe in scripture that sins of ignorance are less sinful before God than sins of knowledge." And then he makes this chilling statement for those of us who live in America and who've heard the gospel again and again and again. He says: "No case is so apparently hopeless as that of the man who sins willfully against the light."

Jesus asked God not to hold these men responsible for the full significance of their wicked acts. And instead, He says: Father, completely forgive them of their sins. And He did that in the moment of His most agonizing suffering. Here we have the heart of Jesus, and it's the same heart that He exercises today. Listen. If you're in Christ this morning, if you're a believer, you are a believer because Jesus prayed for you: Father, forgive him, forgive her… That's His heart.

Finally, I want us to see the answer to this prayer. Jesus prayed for those responsible for His death that day, and the Father always hears the Son. Jesus Himself said in John 11:42, "I knew (Father) that You always hear Me…" And so the Father heard Jesus and the Father answered His prayer that day. I think He answered it in two ways - the first one I can't fully prove to you, the second one I can. First I think He answered it generally. I think the Lord answered this prayer of Jesus from the cross by not immediately exercising His wrath on these people, but rather by exercising patience and restraint. I want you to put yourself in the seat of God for a moment, God the Father. None of us deserve to be there, but I want you to imagine for a moment how you would have responded as God the Father. Although you had ordained the death of Christ, you were not responsible for the wickedness and sin that brought it to pass. And as you watched these wicked people carry out their crimes against your own precious Son, the Son you had loved from all eternity – as you watched Him unjustly accused, railroaded, through their injustice, to death, as you watched Him nailed to the cross by these hardened Roman soldiers, as you watched the mocking and the spittle and the cruelty that was perpetrated against the Son – how would you have responded if you were the Father? I can tell you how I would have responded. I would have wiped the place clean. And forty years later, God does through the Romans, through Titus in 70 A.D. But I believe (and again, I can't prove this to you, but I believe) here you see in God's patience with the city of Jerusalem, an answer to Jesus' prayer. He holds off the wrath that they deserve. He allowed Jerusalem to stand for another forty years, for a full generation. He showed that He's slow to anger and He didn't execute His wrath. And for those forty years, they heard the gospel and were given the opportunity to repent.

But let me tell you how I know the Father answered the Son's prayer. He answered His prayer very specifically. And in fact, on the very day that Jesus prayed this prayer, God answered it by forgiving some of those who were there. The first one is back in Luke 23:26. His name is Simon of Cyrene. We're told his name. Mark tells us his son's names. He says the cross was carried by "Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus…" He writes as if these men are all known to the believers in Rome to whom he writes his gospel. It seems very clear to most commentators down through the history of the church, that Simon and his two sons eventually came to faith. Simon, as he stood there after carrying Jesus' cross to the place of execution – he stood there and watched Jesus die, and Simon was the first answer to Jesus' prayer: Forgive them.

Down in verse 41, one of the two thieves was another answer to Jesus' prayer. He says to his fellow terrorist: "We indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserved for our deeds." He got it. The Lord opened his eyes to see his sin, to see that he deserved what he was getting. But He also opened his eyes to see Jesus. He said, ". . .this man has done nothing wrong. (He's innocent)" But more than that, he saw that Jesus was in fact a King. Notice verse 42: "He was saying, "Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!" He looked at the man dying next to him on the cross and understood who He really was. And to him, Jesus says, ". . .today you will be with Me in Paradise." That thief was an answer to Jesus' prayer: "Father, forgive them…"

The centurion was an answer to the prayer. Look down in verse 47: "Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he began praising God, saying, 'Certainly this man was innocent.'" And the other gospel records say he said, "This was the Son of God!" By the way, it wasn't just the centurion. According to Matthew 27:54, Matthew writes: "Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus…(Remember, most crucifixion details had four soldiers. Perhaps there were more, but there were at least four here. And it says) they all saw the earthquake, the things that were happening, became frightened and (they all) said, 'Truly this was the Son of God!'" We'll meet these four hardened Roman soldiers who actually drove the nails into the wrists of our Lord, who mocked and jeered and divided His garments. We'll meet them in heaven. They were an answer to Jesus' prayer.

But fast forward forty days to Pentecost. Turn to Acts 2. In Acts 2, God the Father continues to answer Jesus' prayer. In his sermon, Peter says to them in verse 23: "this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and you put Him to death." Verse 36: "Let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Messiah - this Jesus whom you crucified." And notice what happened in response to Peter's sermon. Verse 41: "So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls." You understand that three thousand people were added to the church in Jerusalem that day not because of the power of Peter's preaching? You've read the sermon. It's a fine sermon, but there's not enough power there to do that. Instead, it was the work of the Holy Spirit in answer to Jesus' dying prayer.

Within days, a couple of thousand others believed as well. Look over at chapter 4:4: "But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand." So now we've gone from three thousand people to five thousand men plus women and children.

Even some of the leaders came to faith in Christ in response to this prayer of our Lord's. Look at Acts 6: 7: "The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and (watch this) a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith." What an amazing prayer and what an amazing answer from the Father.

How do we respond to this? Let me briefly give you a couple of ways that you and I should apply this prayer of our Lord's. First of all, as He did, we must show a love and a forgiving spirit toward those who wrong us and we must pray for their salvation. This is what our Lord taught, right? I mean, we studied it in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:44: "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…" Pray for what, that they'll stop persecuting you? No! Pray for their salvation, Father forgive them, as Stephen did. Matthew 6:12. "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." Luke 6:27 – "But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." Pray what for those who mistreat you? Pray that the Father would forgive them. Pray that they would be granted repentance and faith. Pray, as Paul instructs us in 1Timothy 2, that prayers be made for all men for their salvation, because "God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." Folks, we need to have a forgiving spirit, but we need to go beyond that forgiving spirit and do as Jesus did here. We need to pray for the forgiveness of the unbelievers around us, no matter how evil or hardened they may seem. I mean, after all, would you ever for a moment have believed that that hardened, cruel Roman centurion would have ever come to faith in Jesus Christ? Would you have ever believed that one of those thieves, one of those terrorists dying on the cross next to Christ would have come to faith? They did through the power of God in response to the prayer of our Lord. We're taught to pray the same.

There's a second lesson here for us and it's very appropriate for this week. We must live in constant awareness of and gratitude for the fact that Jesus bought our forgiveness on the cross. Do you see that the moment that He prayed this prayer He was paying for our forgiveness? Implied in His prayer is the key theological issue of substitution. Jesus is in essence praying this: Father, forgive them and condemn Me. How do I know that's what He was thinking? Jesus understood the truth of Hebrews 9:22: "…without shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness. (of sins)" He understood that. And so He understood, that in praying Forgive them, He was saying, Father, accept My sacrifice. Accept My blood as payment for their sin. Matthew 26:28.- He speaks of His blood being "poured out for the forgiveness of sins."

Matthew Henry, the great Puritan commentator, in describing this passage, says there are three great lessons you and I need to learn from it. Number one: "The great thing which Christ died to purchase is the forgiveness of sins." You understand that when we celebrate Good Friday, we celebrate the death of Jesus? He was paying for sin. He was suffering the wrath of God against every sin of every believer. He was paying for forgiveness. Secondly, Henry says: "This is that for which Christ intercedes for all that repent and believe." Do you understand that if you're in Christ, it's because Jesus prayed this prayer for you: 'Father, forgive him, forgive her. Condemn Me, but forgive him.' Henry goes on to say: "The greatest sinners may find through Christ, upon their repentance, mercy." You understand the fact that Jesus would pray this prayer for those who were physically torturing Him and putting Him to death means that there is no sin you've committed that keeps you from forgiveness if you are willing to repent? He paid for them all for those who will believe.

Seven hundred years before Jesus prayed this prayer, Isaiah told us He would pray it. Listen to the last verse of Isaiah 53: "He was numbered with the transgressors; He Himself bore the sin of many, (that's what He was doing on the cross – bearing the sin of many. And at the same time) He interceded for the transgressors." "Father, forgive them…" Let's pray together.

Our Father, we are overwhelmed by Your grace to us - that You would allow Your Son to endure such suffering on our behalf - that You didn't spare Your own Son but You delivered Him up for us all, to endure this for us. And not just human suffering, not just that inflicted by the soldiers, by the crowd, but most of all, You were pleased to crush Him so that You could render Him a guilt offering for us. Father, we thank You and bless You. We thank You for the dying prayer of our Lord in which He interceded for us, for the transgressors. Lord, as we sit here today, we're reminded that we're only in Christ because He prayed this for us, and then because He paid for our forgiveness with His own life. Lord, this week help us to think on these things. Drive our mind back to what really happened on that Friday two thousand years ago. And may we be filled with gratitude, filled with worship. May nothing else matter to us as much as that does.

Father, I also pray for those here this morning – undoubtedly there are a number – who have never repented and believed in Jesus, who still bear the guilt and the weight of their own sin and who one day, if they die without that forgiveness, will suffer forever for their own sin. Father, may this be the day when they respond to the heart of our Lord. May they repent and believe. May You grant them that. Father, our prayer for those here this morning who don't know Jesus is the same as our Lord's: Forgive them. Father, give them repentance and give them faith and forgive them. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.